Pipeline politics challenge Democrat governors Cooper and Northam

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new State Employees' Credit Union member services support office in Rocky Mount, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Alan Campbell/Rocky Mount Telegram via AP)

RALEIGH — This weekend’s winter storm delayed a closely watched vote in Virginia on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the 600-mile natural gas line slated to run through West Virginia, ending in Robeson County, N.C. The vote was whether to approve a compressor station that’s been the frequent target of protests.

A Virginia citizen panel that votes on air pollution permits was set to decide Monday whether Dominion Energy can build a natural gas compressor station in the historic African-American community of Union Hill. But the state on Sunday announced the meeting was being pushed back to Dec. 19 because of a winter storm that has made roads dangerous.

Dominion Energy needs the State Air Pollution Control Board to sign off on a permit to build a station to pump gas through the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Dominion, the lead developer of the pipeline and dominant force in Virginia politics, said it chose the location because it had sufficient acreage for sale and intersects with an existing pipeline. Both Dominion and the Northam administration have said they’ve worked carefully to ensure the station will be as environmentally friendly as possible and won’t harm nearby residents.

“It is the strictest permit for a compressor station in the country,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler.

But opposition has been fierce, both from groups that don’t want the pipeline built at all and by others who worry exhaust from the compressor station will hurt the low-income and elderly residents who live nearby.

Some opponents have accused Dominion of trying to take advantage of Union Hill’s black residents. Richard Walker, who says his great-grandfather bought a 25-acre homestead in Union Hill for $15 in 1885 as a freed slave, said Dominion is engaged in “environmental racism.”

Dominion has strongly denied the charge and has said it has deep respect for the community and wants to be a constructive partner. The company has recently offered to give more than $5 million to help improve Union Hill.

The ACP project has proven to be politically challenging for both Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper as both Democrats try to balance environmental protestor demands with the needs of industry to have easy access to natural gas in economically distressed areas.

N.C. lawmakers are hiring an outside investigator to look into whether a $57.8 million discretionary fund negotiated by Cooper was in exchange for a key permit for the pipeline. The fund would be in addition to the millions already slated for environmental impact by the builders of ACP. The fund would have been controlled by a panel appointed by Cooper for “environmental mitigation projects.”

“I want to know whether the governor held this permit hostage until Duke [Energy] agreed to fund $58 million into a slush fund under his direct control, and possibly even a lot more than that,” N.C. Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) said in a recent committee meeting. “We will uncover the truth. And when we do, we will hold those people accountable.”

Earlier this year the state legislature reallocated the money, sending it to the counties’ school systems instead.